A bunch of nerds bogarted Angela’s favorite picnic table. On any other day, such an imposition on the special spot that she shared with her bestie would have earned those kids a major ass-kicking with her fancy heels. (Or at least she’d have annoyed them into leaving.) Lucky for them, Angela was dining alone today. …The only trouble was that Julian was still supposed to MEET Angela first for an afternoon briefing. Angela was dying to get the details on Julian’s study date with Michael.
She really hoped that Julian wasn’t late because she’d had another one of her freaky dreams. It was plain to see that Julian was in trouble. Even before the girl’s parents went missing, weird things were happening, things that Julian didn’t seem to remember. Angela just… didn’t know what to do. If she admitted her concerns, Julian would flip. Julian was hurting. She was traumatized. The last thing she needed was for her best friend to start crying that she was terrified of what might happen.
She couldn’t say anything. Not until she could do something about it.
Glancing at the time on her phone for the sixth time in… four minutes… Angela tapped her foot against the paved walkway outside of the school where she stood waiting for Julian to emerge. She hated not knowing why Julian was late. Maybe Angela’s mothering was a little over the top, but under the circumstances, who else did Julian have to look out for her? Her social worker? Her therapist? They weren’t around for the day-to-day stuff.
Angela knew what it was like to lose a parent. She and her dad would have crashed and burned if it weren’t for Julian and her family. Julian was Angela’s lifeline, and now it was her turn to be there for Julian.
Y’know, if she could find the dummy.
Maybe Julian had just gotten impatient and ran off to meet her new beau a little early. While she still had the phone out, Angela sent a probing text. Another minute went by with no reply. So she tried a second one. Before she knew it, two texts had turned into nine and the first half of lunch was already gone.
This was not going to fly. She at least deserved the courtesy of a “shut up angela”. Angela stomped back inside and headed right for the school library to give Julian a piece of her mind.
But there was no Julian to be found. Michael, on the other hand, was right where she expected him to be. He’d parked himself at one of the small round study tables that filled the library’s lower floor, his fancy leather satchel taking up the chair across from him; obviously he was saving Miss No-Show a seat. There was an open book on the table in front of him.
Angela narrowed her eyes. He was once again dressed way, way too well for a high school Junior. Maybe he was so rich that he’d hired a personal valet to do his shopping and lay out his fancy clothes, Angela decided. The thought would’ve made her laugh if she weren’t more concerned with her missing friend.
She dropped into the empty seat at his left side and propped her elbows on the table.
“So I guess Julian has not only ditched ME for lunch, she doesn’t even have the decency to be studying with her new boyfriend instead. That’s cold. I feel for ya.” The teasing look she gave him quickly vanished as she got to the point. “Have you seen her? She was late to school, which, y’know, is not a big deal all by itself. But usually she at least meets me in the courtyard and she’s not answering any of my texts.”
At first, all she got was a blank stare. It was a little offensive, to be perfectly honest; did he seriously not recognize her? She knew he spent most of his time in their English class staring long and deep into Julian’s eyes from across the room, but they had actually been properly introduced at Fleetwood Macchiato.
Then his lips curved into a stiff smile, and it clicked. Ohhh. He was just cranky for the exact same reasons that she was.
“So you don’t know where she is, either,” he said flatly.
“Julian is pretty predictable, most of the time. So it’s weird as hell that she’s not here and is actually ditching both of us. I thought for sure she’d be here with you.”
She watched as he took a deep breath and sank back into his seat, smoothing a hand over the front of his sweater. Damn, was that thing Merino wool? It looked really soft. (The closest Angela had ever come to Merino was while rifling through Margrit’s closet, but she knew what it was, thank you very much.) It also looked warm, which was good—his coat was nowhere in sight, and the school library was notoriously drafty. Even now a slight current of air was blowing past their table, carrying a spicy scent that must have been Michael’s aftershave. The guy was lucky she wasn’t putting her hands all over him, because a sweater like that was begging to be touched. She was willing to throw down money that he chose it for that exact reason. It was the perfect innocent excuse for a girl to get her hands on a dude. Oldest trick in the book, but a flawless classic.
Angela leaned into his space, her sudden smile perfectly casual. Underneath she was surreptitiously testing him out. Julian had crushed hard and fast on this guy. She needed to know why, unless it was just the dreamy intense eyes. Not that Julian usually gushed about hot guys. As corny as it sounded, Julian was sincerely one of those people who was more impressed with what a guy said and did than what he looked like. But while Julian effortlessly saw hidden potential with a glance, Angela had to dig for it. And she was starting to find out that Michael was buried deep.
As much as she tried to dangle the bait, though, Michael wasn’t biting. He stayed almost motionless in his chair even while she shamelessly invaded his personal space. All he did was reach over to close the weighty textbook in front of him, his hand smoothing over the glossy cover. Angela immediately recognized the book; it was the same one she used for her Gothic Lit elective. Michael must have been slotted during another period, because Angela hadn’t seen him in Ms. Audoire’s classroom.
It was the perfect opportunity for a little genuine bonding. Angela pointed a ringed finger.
“I love that class. It’s my fifth period.”
“You like the classics?” he asked, and this time the smile was more genuine. “It’s my third period. I’m looking forward to moving beyond Poe and on to something a little more substantial. The Raven is all well and good, but The Portrait of Dorian Gray is more my style.”
Angela was instantly ready to throw down an entire speech about the narcissism of Dorian Gray and the drawbacks to immortality, but then she remembered why she’d come here. Nerd bonding would have to wait.
“If you ever want to collaborate on a paper with someone who won’t space out and wander into oblivion, I’m available!” she told him, straightening up in her seat. “Buuuuut, in the meantime, I’ve gotta go make sure Julian’s not dead in a bathroom somewhere because she wandered a little too far.”
“I don’t think you’ll find her there,” said Michael. His lips pressed together into a thin, worried line. He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and set it face-up on the table, sliding it across the wooden surface to Angela. There was a text message pulled up on the screen.
Taking your girlfriend for flying lessons. Don’t worry, I won’t bite. 😘 Turning my phone off now!
LEO @ 11:03am
Angela snatched his phone up off the table with a dumbfounded stare. At first she didn’t quite get it, but the moment she realized the sender was listed as Leo, things became clear.
Wait. No they fucking didn’t. What the hell was Julian doing playing hooky with Leo? The girl never skipped school. …Okay, sometimes she did, but almost never on purpose. It was always Angela’s idea. Now she was off on an adventure in truancy with Michael’s leather-clad badboy cousin? Without her?
“Uh, what the hell is this bullshit? He’s cute and all, but last I checked Julian’s play date was with YOU. Did your cousin kidnap my best friend?” she demanded, alarm creeping into her voice. She wagged the phone at him. “‘Cause I can get Sheriff Polk to show up just about anywhere in ten minutes flat.”
“I have a better idea.” Michael pushed himself up from the table and grabbed the phone straight out of her hand. It returned to his jeans pocket as he started gathering up his stuff. “Let’s go find them.”
Angela rose from her seat and… Damn. Even with her heels on she wasn’t quite as tall as Michael. It was easy to forget just how tall he really was until he stood up. He must have been at least six foot, maybe a little more—same as Leo. If Julian had really run off into the sunset with Michael’s cousin, Angela was going to have to start giving her so much shit about collecting dudes who outstripped her by the better part of a foot. Once upon a time Julian had the height advantage between the two of them, but by fifth grade the girl had stopped growing entirely. Angela, meanwhile, kept right on going. And going. When you towered over most of the boys your age, it kind of sucked, especially if you had a taste for fashionable high heels.
“He’s not going to hurt her,” Michael was saying, back on planet earth. “I wouldn’t let him within three feet of Julian if I thought he would. But I’m fairly certain that whatever he has in mind is going to end badly. It always does. He never thinks anything through. He simply does whatever he wants with no consideration for how it affects the people around him, and it’s generally just to spite me.”
These guys were family, alright. Angela was an only child and so was her best friend, but she’d seen the way her other friends bickered with their siblings. No one was this good at annoying you unless you were close. Underneath the cool exterior, Michael Hightower was definitely ticked off. He was trying to hide it, but Angela could still see the telltale tightness in his jaw. That was a sign of either annoyance, jealousy, or worry.
Angela really hoped it wasn’t worry.
“Well then, tall-dark-and-handsome. Count me in on this caper.” Digging into the massive black hole that she called a purse, Angela fetched her own phone. Julian received one last warning.
The Smolder and I are coming after you, you little delinquent. I hope you’re doing something bad, or I’mma be very disappointed.
YOU @ 11:37am
“So. Sounds like you have a great big hate-boner for your trouble-making cousin. Is he the black sheep of the family?” Casting a wide grin over her shoulder, she led the way towards the double glass doors that led out of the library.
“I…” Michael sighed. He looked away, the irritation fading away into something more akin to… resignation. “I don’t hate him. I’m afraid it’s more the other way around.”
Curious. There had to be more juicy details to this story, Angela was certain. So far: Guy meets girl. Girl crushes on guy. Girl meets guy’s cousin, and suddenly she’s off with that dude? It didn’t make sense, even if Angela factored in Julian’s penchants for instantly making friends and occasionally spacing out.
Angela’s legs were long, but Michael’s were longer. He overtook her almost immediately before dropping back to match her pace. She wasn’t the only one curious either. He was giving her a measuring sort of look when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.
“My car or yours?” fished Angela. “Assuming you have one.”
“I have a car,” he said mildly, pulling a keychain out of his pocket and holding it aloft. It was shaped a bit like a belt loop, black with chrome trim and sporting an emblem of little silver wings. The attached key looked older, but it bore a matching insignia on the broad black plastic bow. It was shaped funky. Like a fat-handled screwdriver. Or… What was that spiky-looking tool that people used to punch holes in leather? An awl?
“Rich guy car. Oh, we’re definitely taking the rich guy car.” Angela didn’t know shit about cars outside of what was needed to keep up with her own Precious, but she DID recognize an expensive label when she saw it. Maybe if she was especially adorable, Michael would even let her drive.
Her wicked Cheshire grin lasted all the way to the student parking lot.
The second she spotted the old silver Aston Martin, straight out of an ancient James Bond movie, she burst into raucous laughter. Of course. Merino wool sweaters and a classic car that matched his iPhone case. Michael was shaping up to be the very picture of a wealthy douchebag.
Several cars down, Angela spied Margrit chatting with a couple of her fellow cheerleaders. When she spotted Angela strolling along beside Michael Hightower, her jaw nearly hit the asphalt. Angela gave her the biggest shit-eating grin in her arsenal and flipped her the finger. The mixture of confusion and offense on Margrit’s face was officially the best thing she’d seen all day.
“How was your study date, by the way?” the devious blonde asked, returning her attention to Michael. “Julian and I didn’t really get to talk about it last night. I was too busy trying to make her agree to a dance class.”
“Enlightening,” Michael answered after a beat. He furrowed his eyebrows.
Without further explanation of that loaded statement, Michael made a beeline for the Aston Martin. Instead of getting in on the driver’s side, though, he circled around and opened up the passenger door. For a second it looked like he might actually be letting Angela live out her fantasy of driving a Bond car after all… but then she realized he was holding the door for her.
The boy was old-school. Angela was starting to get an idea of what it was about Michael that had Julian swooning. There weren’t a lot of guys their age that could pull off the whole gentleman thing. The ones who weren’t smug dicks came off as trying too hard. But Michael… Michael was kind of flawless.
And so was his car, holy shit. It had to cost more than her house. The interior of the car was as impressive as the outside. The upholstery was much newer than the rest of it; it was leather, probably Italian leather knowing this guy, and it still had that new leather smell. It was dyed grey to match the silver exterior. Angela was beginning to sense a theme.
It was also pristine. Most guys their age practically lived in their car, but Michael clearly took incredibly good care of this thing. She ran a finger over the spotless leather, hoping that Margrit was still back there letting her imagination run wild. Angela certainly was. This was the kind of car she dreamed about. These dreams involved fancy dinner dates and making out in the back seat.
“I’m not trying to worry you,” Michael was saying as he started the car. “If it’s any relief, Leo thinks he’s helping. He’s just… doing it in the way he knows will most annoy me.”
“If that’s all, there’s nothing to worry about. Julian puts up with me and Margrit all the time. One annoying asshole won’t be a problem.” She flashed him a wide smile. “Not that we shouldn’t hunt them down anyway. She’s violating our Don’t Vanish agreement.”
Setting her monstrous purse next to her feet, Angela went straight for the radio. Her hand hesitated for just a second when she realized there were a lot of buttons. It too was much newer than the rest of the car, installed in what had probably once been an empty spot in front of the gear shift. And damned if she didn’t feel like her peasant fingers shouldn’t be touching something so expensive. A chance to play with such a nice sound system was irresistible, though, and she was curious to see what sort of music he listened to.
He had one of those revolving CD players, it looked like, because CD3 popped up on the display when the radio came to life. A song picked up where it had left off. It was one Angela knew, vaguely, but that was about as old as the car was for sure.
Jesus, was that Elvis? Thanks to Julian, Angela’s taste in music included some classics and a little variation outside of her preferred dance-pop, but it was difficult to take Elvis Presley seriously. Great-grandmas and elitist music nerds listened to Elvis, not high school teenagers.
“…I do have newer things to listen to,” he told her, doubtless in response to whatever face she was making. He reached over to lower the volume. The sound quality was crystal clear, that much was true. “If you’re not fond of any of the disk selection, I have an iPod and a USB drive.”
Angela definitely took the opportunity to scour through his stuff. Not that there was much to look at when the Aston Martin was so tidy. One noteworthy item was that the car, of course, was manual. There were actually a fair number of manual cars in Silent Pines, since families tended to hang onto cars forever, but Angela was one of the few people her own age who actually drove stick. It was one thing to own a classic car, but another thing entirely to drive it. Especially since this guy clearly had the money to get any automatic car he wanted, or even to convert the transmission. That was stupid expensive. She’d checked.
Meanwhile Michael backed the car up out of its parking space and then pulled smoothly out of the lot. His eyes slid over to Angela with a disapproving frown as they hit the main road.
“Put on your seatbelt,” he suggested, despite the fact that he wasn’t wearing one either.
Angela was still making weird faces about Elvis, even as she buckled in with a soft click. It was probably the only reason why she didn’t call him out for the hypocrisy.
“Is vanishing a common occurrence?” he asked.
“Julian lives on another planet. She gets distracted and ends up halfway across town.” She hesitated for a moment, not sure if she should explain exactly why she wasn’t keen on losing track of Julian. Angela didn’t know how much the pair had gotten to know each other in their enlightening conversation.
“Has she told you much about herself?” she asked outright.
Unfortunately Michael’s expression didn’t give much away. He seemed entirely focused on driving, not glancing her way even when she started cycling through the CDs in the player and fiddling with his radio. He hadn’t been lying that his musical taste had a little more range, but he definitely seemed to have a thing for acoustic and piano. The other CDs he had in rotation included Ed Sheeran, Bastille, the Beatles, and Coldplay.
“Not too much,” he admitted over the opening chords of The Scientist. “We’ve mostly discussed history. …And our families.”
There was something in his tone that felt a little off, a crack in that outer shell. His dark eyes finally met hers for a brief moment before they were back on the road ahead.
“Any idea where she might wander?” he continued. “Leo doesn’t wander so much as deliberately make himself unavailable. I’ve thought about tracking the GPS on his phone, but I’ve been told that’s considered stalking.”
If it hadn’t been for the slight curve of his mouth, she might have thought he was serious. His delivery was utterly dry.
“Hmm. I’d do the GPS thing on Julian but she pitches a fucking fit about people touching her phone.” Nothing was more valuable than their phones these days. That was something the girls agreed on. Although Angela hadn’t expected Julian to actually turn up missing again. Otherwise she WOULD have put a damn tracking app on her phone. She hadn’t accounted for hot boys.
“Wherever they are, they’re not at our place. I checked in with home already.” For all that Michael wasn’t concerned with a seat belt, he was a careful driver. Maybe a little too careful for Angela’s taste. What kind of grandpa drove the actual speed limit? Then again, it was a classic car… “What else does she like to do? Anywhere she particularly likes to go? With friends.”
Was that a hint of eagerness she detected?
“Why Mikey, are you fishing for information on my totally cute and very single best friend?” Angela didn’t hold back her grin or her sudden bout of laughter. He was pretty good at keeping a straight face, but between giving Julian the smolder-eyes in class and bristling about his cousin running off with her, it was pretty obvious Michael was at least a little interested.
“She likes coffee, food, books… But since she’s out and about with Mister Unavailable, there’s no telling,” Angela admitted with a shrug of her shoulders, leaning a little in his direction with a sly smile. “You know, it’s been a long time since Julian has gone out and done stuff without me literally dragging her. That was before you came around. What are your intentions with my bestie? Should I be concerned?”
“Nothing dubious,” he answered at once. “My intentions may be less scholarly than I’ve implied, but I’m not the one you should be worried about.”
Judging by the turn he took, Michael seemed to have decided that heading downtown was the best place to start looking for her friend and his cousin. It wasn’t a bad call; after all, both the coffee shop and the library were down that way—two of Julian’s favorite haunts, and the places she’d already met Michael besides. Downtown was a pretty reasonable destination for any truant teenager. Silent Pines didn’t have much going for it.
Still grinning ear to ear, Angela peered out the window. Maybe she’d catch her brunette friend strolling down the sidewalk with a hottie in a leather jacket.
“Lucky for you, I am THE top authority on everything Julian. For example, she’d rather walk everywhere than get her license. And if she says that’s my fault, she sucks.”
The process of Angela earning her license had involved a whole lot of scaring her dad and Julian to death. It was Julian’s own fault for wanting to tag along. Angela loved driving and she especially loved driving fast. Michael was smart to not give her the keys to his car, because they’d be hitting the highway instead of searching for her friend.
“Let’s see, what else… She likes parties of any kind. Bonus points if she gets to dress up. Oh! And dancing! She LOVES it. Like, professional-level dancing, everything from ballroom waltz to badass music video choreography. Before her parents disappeared she was in an advanced class with Margrit and I’m pretty sure she could’ve entered competitions if the dork didn’t have such bad stage fright. I actually just last night convinced her to take classes again.”
“She likes music,” murmured Michael. He glanced down at the CD player. Angela had left it on the last CD, and Chris Martin was still softly crooning along as an undercurrent to their conversation. Michael cut it off and leaned across Angela to open the glove compartment in front of her. He pulled out a bright white MP3 player and placed it in Angela’s hand.
“Show me what kind of music she likes,” he told her.
And that was how they spent the rest of the drive. Michael stayed quiet while Angela had free reign of his iPod. There actually was quite a lot in his collection that Julian would have approved of; when they got through that, Angela helpfully took out her phone and started pulling up YouTube videos.
The music sharing continued even after they parked the car and started walking around the downtown strip. The library was a swing and a miss; Fleetwood Macchiato likewise came up empty, but Michael insisted on buying Angela a coffee to go while they were there. Michael got nothing for himself, though he did linger for a few minutes in the upstairs record shop before they headed back onto the street.
It was a brisk fall day, but the hot latte and her warmest scarf kept her nice and toasty. She kept up a steady stream of conversation as they walked down Main Street, barely noticing that Michael was mostly listening. Angela was just getting into the nitty-gritty of Julian’s love-hate relationship with Pitbull when Michael finally asked a question.
“What’s this place?”
He’d slowed to a halt under the awning outside a tiny little shopfront that was crammed between a hole-in-the-wall liquor store and an even bigger hole-in-the-wall deli market. The building was painted a deep blue, the large display window mostly obscured by its gauzy, starry curtains and the colorful crystal baubles dangling inside. Curling letters on the glass proclaimed the shop’s name.
Angela paused next to Michael, leaning around him to peer inside. She took a long sip of her coffee and tilted towards him.
“The Seventh Star,” she stage-whispered out of the side of her mouth. She waited a beat for effect. “They say a witch runs the place and if you ask the right questions she’ll sell you curses.”
She couldn’t even finish the sentence without cracking a smirk. With a roll of her eyes, she shrugged her shoulders and waved a hand dismissively.
“It’s just a bunch of New Age and bohemian stuff. Books, rocks, and shiny things like these.” Angela held out her arm and jangled her collection of bracelets. “Basically, it’s been here longer than Fleetwood, but not as long as the new library. No one has been able to come up with a better story than witch curses. You can’t go anywhere in Silent Pines without someone trying to tell you a bullshit urban legend about how their grandma was a Sasquatch princess and saved the town from ghost bears. Small towns are SO weird.”
“And you’re a skeptic,” Michael surmised, the corner of his mouth quirking up into a smile. “You don’t believe in anything without evidence, I’m guessing. Have you ever come face to face with something you couldn’t explain, Angela?”
“Julian,” she responded with a loud laugh. “But only because she has questionable taste in friends. Jury is still out on whether or not you’re just as bad as the rest of us. You knooow, if I were a guy trying to get to know a girl, I’d take her and her super hot friend somewhere fun. Maybe even invite my jerk cousin so he doesn’t crash the party. Totally not because the hot friend wants someone to play with if her bestie is suddenly busy.”
That wasn’t the most subtle of hints or invitations, but Angela Mercy was never one for being subtle. Julian was probably going to die of embarrassment when she found out, which kind of made it all the more fun. This was payback for making Angela bang her head on a table the other day.
“I think doing something as a group is a great idea. You said she likes dancing. I’m sure you know the local clubs better than I do, so I’ll take your recommendation.” He didn’t deny her accusation; in fact, he seemed to perk up at her suggestion. At least in relative terms. Michael wasn’t exactly the poster child for perky. “…Just the three of us, though.”
He turned his back on her, staring in through the glass front of the Seventh Star. His hand lifted as if to touch one of the hanging crystals, one that was shaped like a small sun with the rays curling and twisting all around it. A moment later he let his hand drop and looked over his shoulder at her, his dark eyes clouded.
“You don’t know Leo like I do,” he told her. “He’s my family. But he’s… trouble.”
“Trouble? Nooo. That sweet boy in the leather jacket who kidnaps girls from school and leaves cryptic texts? Couldn’t possibly be trouble.” If the sarcastic tone wasn’t enough, she punctuated it with a raise of her eyebrow and the quirk of her mouth.
Angela was getting a lot of mixed signals where it concerned Leo. Michael had some serious issues with his cousin, that much was clear. But he also kept going out of his way to reassure her that Leo wasn’t doing anything dangerous or creepy with Julian. The guy was just trying to annoy him, he said. Which led Angela to suspect their ongoing battle might be rooted in girl problems.
If Leo was toying around with Julian to antagonize his cousin, that boy’s nuts were going to get a swift introduction to Angela’s favorite sparkling heels.
“…Okay, no douchebag cousin! Keep the cute girls all to yourself.” That teasing look was back, at least for as long as it took for her to juggle her coffee and dig her phone back out of her ridiculously huge purse. She swiped her thumb across the screen as she did a little quick browsing. “There’s this badass club in Merrywood called Envy that’s supposed to have the best live bands, and all you need to get in is a halfway-convincing fake I.D.”
She gave Michael a quick once-over. Yeah, Mister Flawless did not seem like the type for sneaking into sketchy clubs. Angela’s smirk broadened.
“Buuuut everyone’s been tweeting about the place being bad news ever since this one girl turned up missing, so… Here we go!” Angela held out her phone so he could see the picture and Google Maps address she’d pulled up. “Clarity is here in town. Not as cool as driving out to Merrywood, but the minimum age is sixteen. We wouldn’t have to sneak in and I can always hit on the DJ if you and Julian want to be aloooone together.”
“That sounds perfect.” Michael flashed Angela a sincere smile, the tension in his face melting away. “Thank you.”
Aw, he didn’t look so rigid and stuffy when he actually smiled. No wonder Julian was besotted. Between that and the politesse, all he’d have to do now was dance with the girl and she’d probably fall in love. Damn it, Angela really hoped his cousin wasn’t as big of a dick as Michael claimed, because she wanted a boy to play with too!
He gave the New Age shop a final glance and sighed before he began to trudge down the street again, hands in his pockets. Angela skipped to join him.
“We can talk to Julian when we find her,” he said when she’d caught up. His mouth twisted into a wry grimace. “Whenever that is. I’m beginning to think we’ve gone in the wrong direction entirely. Are you sure they wouldn’t have gone to her house? Maybe we should check.”
“We might as well.” she agreed. “And if she’s not there, we can just wait. I know where she hides the spare key.”
Despite the tiny pang of jealousy, Angela was pretty thrilled to be involved with Julian’s first potential romantic rendezvous. It was going to be fun. If Angela had anything to say about it, absolutely nothing was going to come between Julian and her new maybe-boyfriend.
Michael and Julian would be locking lips by this time next week.
The entrance to the Silent Pines Cemetery was straight out of a hokey old horror movie. The rusted wrought-iron gates towered above even Leo’s head. Withered vines, brown with the first chill of autumn, climbed up the metal bars to obscure their ornate and twisting design. The gates were set into the crumbling granite that bordered the whole perimeter of the graveyard—but for the southernmost point of the wall, where a heavy tree branch had fallen and split the stone straight in two. The woods had begun to reclaim the site.
It was a lonely place. A place for forgotten things. Remnants from another time.
Few additions were made to the headstones anymore, as far as Julian knew. There was a newer, more modern plot on the opposite side of town… and most people these days were getting cremated. She could see why no one really came up here except for the tours with the Historical Society (or occasionally, teenagers on a dare). There wasn’t even a proper paved road leading to the cemetery, only a dirt trail scarcely wide enough for a car.
Leo parked the Mustang at the end of the trail.
“Here we go,” he said as they stepped out into the shade of the pines. He made his way over to the gates and untwisted a chain so decrepit that even Julian could likely have pulled it free easily. Maybe no one was worried about the security when the bars were set wide enough for someone Julian’s size to squeeze through. “This is going to be our classroom today. I hope you brought your thinking cap.”
He was still carrying what was left of his food. It was sort of a relief to see vampires still struggled with ordinary things like eating one-handed while driving. For her part, Julian was beginning to regret scarfing down her own lunch so quickly. If she’d known they were going to a graveyard she might not have ordered so much food. Her stomach felt like the Butterfly Blight of 1916 had come back to haunt her.
Her footsteps slowed as she reached the gate on Leo’s heels, the reality of her situation sinking in. She was in a cemetery with a vampire. This was crazy. Julian wasn’t even sure she believed that she was psychic. Not really. Why was she even trying to do this?
I always try to remember how delicate you are, Mr. Cragg’s words echoed in the back of her mind. Julian frowned, wrapping her fingers around two of the iron bars in front of her and squeezing tight.
And then another voice. We were avoiding spoiling your delicate maiden ears. Her gaze slid sideways to Leo. Julian wasn’t sure what to think of the guy. Last night he’d scared the hell out of her. Outside in the light of day, wearing his stupid sunglasses and chomping down on a cheeseburger, he didn’t seem so scary. She was more afraid of her math teacher.
There was something about those glasses…
“You’re sun sensitive,” she announced with certainty, squinting. “But you can still waltz around in the daylight? Is that one just a myth?”
“It’s not a myth,” he informed Julian between bites of food. “The sun is bad news. If I were new at this, I’d have gone up in flames the second I set foot outside. You can get out and about with age and practice, but even then there’s only so much direct sun you can take before you start getting the worst sunburn of your life. I have to stay indoors or in the shade as much as possible.”
There was plenty of shade here in the woods, which was probably why he took them off then and put them into the pocket of his jacket. …And he was giving her that look again. If Julian hadn’t known better she might think Leo was the psychic, because he could clearly tell she wasn’t thrilled about his choice of scenery for their practice session.
“Relax,” he told her, confirming her suspicions. “This is a nice, secluded area. We can chill out here and no one will bother us, and it’s safe. For you, anyway.”
Julian wasn’t so sure. Maybe the dead couldn’t hurt her, but every zombie movie she’d ever heard of was swimming through her head right now. If vampires were real, why not other kinds of undead?
Crumpling up the wrapper of his burger and stuffing it into his other pocket, he batted her hands away from the bars. Curling his own fingers around a particularly sharp-looking curlicue, he swung one winged gate inward and leaned back to rest against the iron lattices. The unkempt grass was crushed under the heels of his boots as he shifted his feet and quirked an eyebrow. There was a glint in his eyes that Julian wasn’t sure she much liked. “You know, you’re asking an awful lot of questions about vampires, but not the ones I’d expect.”
“I’m sorry, did you want me to ask whether you sparkle and if I should fear for my virginity?” Despite herself, she laughed and rolled her eyes skyward. “Or is this where I’m supposed to wonder if you sleep in a coffin and if so, which one of these mausoleums is your house?”
There was one question on Julian’s mind. She already knew the answer, but she dreaded it all the same.
“Are we actually going in there?” She struggled to keep the panic out of her voice. Any minute now something was going to come crawling up from beneath the faded stone pathways. “We’re seriously going to wander around in a graveyard?”
Leo burst into laughter. The jerk was practically doubling over, his shoulders shaking as he clung to the gate.
“Yes, we’re going in. Something stopping you?” And then, bizarrely, he actually nudged her foot with the tip of his toes. Like he was her asshole big brother picking on her, or something. “Come on, Jules. You’re already hanging out with a dead guy, what’s a few more?”
Leo received the dirtiest glare she could muster. Julian stomped right past him through the gate, shoving her fears deep down. She folded her arms and tapped fidgety fingers against her jacket sleeves.
After a few solid steps, the stiffness melted out of her. Nothing was happening. It really was just a graveyard and its only occupants were a so-called psychic and an asshole vampire. Julian spun around, mentally beaming some choice swear words in his direction and secretly hoping he could hear her. If telepathy was part of her psychic repertoire, Julian would be an expert by the end of the day.
Her would-be-tutor didn’t seem to notice.
“Anyway,” Leo went on, rekindling their earlier conversation, “While I’m just thrilled to discover that you’re saving yourself for Mikey, I’m actually more interested that you don’t seem to care that we’re blood-sucking monsters. The usual FAQs are in the general ballpark of morality and the metaphysical. ‘Are you evil?’ ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ ‘Do you have souls?’ That kind of garbage.”
“I answered most of those questions on my own. I’m not being kidnapped, coerced, or threatened. Plenty of humans are serial killers. I very clearly remember you, on the other hand, saying ‘no need to kill’. You’re not a monster, you’re just an ASSHOLE. We’ve already established that.” Julian would have glared at him if she weren’t so focused on watching where she placed her feet. She still wasn’t entirely over the idea that she might be stepping on bodies. Occasionally she’d find herself circumventing patches of grass that didn’t even have a marker, feeling especially silly but unable to bring herself to step there all the same.
Leo didn’t have that problem. He moved with an easy, effortless sort of confidence. His long legs carried him right past her as he picked his way through the field of mismatched headstones: granite crosses, statues of angels, and carved tombstones in the shape of archways. Many of the graves dated back to at least the turn of the century and some of the markers were falling to bits with age. Leo hopped over a cracked stone face and turned around to walk backwards, raising an eyebrow at Julian.
“For the record,” he said. “I sleep in a bed like everyone else. And if I were bringing a girl back to my place, it sure wouldn’t be the chick who writes ‘Mrs. Michael Hightower’ in her diary.”
Somehow Leo managed to find one more horrifying thing to drive another nail into HER coffin. It didn’t matter if he’d seen the doodles in her favorite notebook or it was just a lucky guess. This was the WORST. Pretending that she couldn’t feel the tinge of crimson in her cheeks, Julian balled up her fists and hurried to catch up to him.
“…I’m not stupid, you know,” she sulked. A more somber expression overtook her a moment later. “And I do know you probably have killed someone before. I’m not ready to deal with that yet.”
Julian wasn’t only talking about Leo. She might have been crushing hard, but common sense still told her that Leo and Michael must have been around a while. Vampires needed blood to survive. She wanted to believe that they weren’t bad people… but that didn’t mean they’d never done bad things.
“If you want my help, tell me your life is filled with unicorns and rainbows so I don’t feel like a dumbass for practicing mind powers with a vampire in an empty graveyard. Okay?” she begged.
Leo stopped dead in his tracks so suddenly that she almost ran into him.
“You’ve had a pretty easy life, haven’t you?” he asked casually, conversationally, tilting his head to one side and looking her up and down. He propped an elbow on one of the graves and rested his weight there. When Julian opened her mouth to retort, he rolled his eyes and made a halting gesture.
“Yeah, I know, missing parents. Classically tragic teen heroine backstory. But you’ve never had anything really bad happen, Jules, have you? Nothing you couldn’t bounce back from. Small town girl, good family, old money. Close friends. Probably the same friends since cartoon characters were a mandatory part of your wardrobe, am I right?”
Taking a single step closer, he held out his open hand to Julian and wiggled his fingers. “Life isn’t rainbows and unicorns, though. That’s the truth. If you don’t like that, don’t give me your hand. You can run along home and forget this whole thing now.
“So what’s it going to be? Do you trust me?”
His palm lay flat, supine and waiting.
“Are you serious?” she asked. She almost slapped his hand away right then and there. Leo didn’t know her or what her life was like. There was a lot more to Julian than missing parents and an ill-advised crush. He didn’t know the things she’d see when she tried to sleep. He didn’t know what it felt like to realize all your nightmares could be real.
Julian was going to die. If she really was psychic, that was one thing she knew for certain. It didn’t matter if she turned around and ran back home now; Pandora’s box was already open. Michael and Leo could walk out of her life and she’d still end up staring death in the face.
“Wouldn’t it have been nice to at least pretend just for a little while that things weren’t going to hell?” she asked, sighing in exasperation. Screw it. At least Leo’s offer was a choice. Julian had far too few of those lately.
“Don’t make me regret this.” When she grabbed his hand, she wasn’t at all surprised to get that same zing of heat. Maybe they were both in hell already.
Julian might as well be trusting the devil.
Leo smiled broadly at Julian in that brief moment, his uncomfortably blue eyes locking with hers. In retrospect, she probably should have known then. She felt a hand on her waist. Suddenly the ground was very definitely not under her feet where it belonged.
The world went first blurry and then nearly pitch black. Julian was plummeting backward with nothing to slow her fall, the light overhead getting further and further away as if the darkness was trying to swallow her whole… until she hit the dirt, literally, and came to an abrupt stop.
“Seriously? How many times did you watch Aladdin as a kid, Jules? First part of the lesson: Don’t trust vampires,” Leo’s voice rang out overhead. There was a faint echo as the sound bounced against solid rock. When Julian looked up, she could see a shadow moving across the square of light above her.
“Rrrrrgh!!” she growled in answer, snarling and kicking her feet. What must have been a rock went clattering away into the dark. As she scrabbled into an upright position, loose dirt slipped between her fingers.
Now that everything wasn’t happening so fast, she had a chance to assess her surroundings. The lighting was abysmal, but she could see a rectangle of grey stone flooring where the light was filtering down. It looked like the same kind of stone used for the cemetery walls. Nearby she could just barely make out the square silhouettes of two very large tombs.
Oh god. Oh god, he’d dropped her into the crypts. This had to be part of a mausoleum. There were dead bodies all over the place down here and not all of them were lucky enough to get nice stone boxes to sleep in. It smelled earthy and musty, like the place had been sealed up for a very long time and had only been disturbed recently. …Which meant all kinds of corpses in varying levels of rot could be strewn around and MAD about it.
The reason Julian hadn’t cracked open her skull was that she’d landed soundly atop what seemed like a truckload of dirt. Furiously, she slapped it from her clothes as she rolled and clambered up onto her feet, muttering some choice words under her breath.
She was beginning to get an idea of how Leo might have gotten covered in so much dirt the night before.
“Lesson part two.” Maybe it was just the acoustics down there, but he sounded a lot closer this time. “Thinking on your feet. What now?”
“What now?! I’d punch you in your vampire teeth if I weren’t afraid you’d bite my hand off!” she shouted. “I don’t know what now. You can’t just drop me in a pit of angry dead people and expect me to figure it out!”
Julian needed to breathe. With her eyes adjusting to the dim light, she could see a little more. Still no walls, but she could get some sense of depth and shadow. And no dead bodies. That was the important part. If she saw a dead body, she was DONE.
She couldn’t see that jerkass either, though, and she really needed to be aware of him right now. Julian inched away from her tiny square of light, squinting into the darkness. Luckily being pissed off was a really good motivation.
“Did you even have a lesson plan, or did you just want to dump me in a hole to be a dick?”
“Oh, I have a plan,” the disembodied voice replied from a little ways to her right. Before she could take another step, he was speaking from the opposite side. “Think. There’s no way you can get back up the way you came. You don’t have a light. I stole your cell phone, so don’t bother checking for it. How are you going to get out?”
“Stop it,” she hissed. “You’re not going to hurt me.” Despite his words, she felt in her pockets and swore again when they turned out as empty as he’d promised. The flashlight app would’ve been a godsend, of course, but Julian quickly realized there was a bigger problem. She’d forgotten to text Angela about her change of plans. If something happened down here, no one would know where she was.
There was a scraping noise behind her, but by the time she spun towards the sound he was gone. Probably. It was still too dark for her to be sure.
“Sorry Jules, you’re stuck down here with me,” Leo was saying. His words echoed through the crypt, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly where he was. “You so sure I’m not going to hurt you? Maybe… I don’t really think you can find Tasha and Colby. Maybe… I don’t care that Michael thinks you’re precious.”
A sliver of doubt nagged at her. Julian didn’t know Leo any better than he knew her. He might actually be a sadistic bloodthirsty douchebag. Her gut said you can trust him and she was naive enough to believe it and run off with him, no questions asked. Now she was going to die alone in the dark. What if this was what her dream had been warning her about?
“Michael thinks I’m precious?” she asked, cringing at how shaky she sounded. She stumbled over a pile of pebbles and scooped to pick some up. The jagged edges dug into her fingers as she squeezed them tight.
“Really? That’s what you’re thinking about right now?” Leo demanded. There was a distinct satisfaction in knowing she’d managed to irk him, though her triumph was short-lived. “Yes, Hollinger, he thinks you’re precious. Fuck, I forgot what teenagers are like. Hormones are way more intense than your survival instincts.”
Again she heard a scraping noise, like nails on a chalkboard. It was closer this time. She shivered, rubbing her free hand along her arm to stave off the chill of goosebumps. Julian didn’t even want to know how he was making that sound. With his own nails against the stone? With some poor dead person’s bones?
Trying to swallow around the panic digging its claws into her throat, Julian shuffled carefully backward until her searching fingers found cold stone. She squeezed her eyes shut and strained to listen over the erratic pounding of her heartbeat. When Leo wasn’t taunting her, the silence practically roared. Something tickled the back of her neck and Julian let out a quiet squeak as she hopped away from the wall, shaking out her hair to dislodge loose cobwebs and what she hoped wasn’t ten billion spiders.
Wait. It wasn’t a wall. She’d backed into one of the tombs. Julian was quick to heft herself up onto the block of granite and stand, knees as wobbly as a baby deer’s, atop her new vantage point. Maybe it was just a placebo effect now that she wasn’t on the ground, but it did give her a better feel for the place. Her eyes made a useless attempt to track Leo’s voice as he started to speak again.
“Come on, Jules, focus. Forget about what’s going on out there. Right now, you’re in here. And I’ve gotta tell you, I’m not seeing much in the way of common sense from you so far. What’s getting on higher ground going to do for you if you can’t see?”
Obviously he didn’t have the same problem.
“It’s going to give me a better chance to leap at you and strangle you to death, for one!” she yelled, now sounding a little less shaky and a lot more pissed off. Common sense? As far as Julian could tell she was behaving like any normal person would under disturbing circumstances. Apparently, searching for anything to stop yourself from being terrified out of your mind wasn’t common sense to an asshole vampire.
“Fine, I’m focusing!” Winding up one of her rocks, she chucked it hard across the mausoleum when she heard another scratch. She heard it strike stone, and that only made her madder. “Focusing on making your brain explode! Or how about you bursting into flames? That would be nice!”
His whole aura already felt like sizzle and hellfire. Somehow it was easy zeroing in on that and hoping he’d ignite. When she didn’t get her wish, she reared back with another rock. It clattered in the distance, and Julian scowled.
“How is this supposed to be REMOTELY useful for psychic teaching, anyway?!”
“Which part? Forcing you to use the senses you usually ignore? Or making you tap into all those emotions welling up in your little maiden heart? Do you even realize you’re using them right now?” he asked flatly. Maiden heart? She sent another rock peeling through the air. “Good one. Just a little too slow. You’re getting warmer.”
The lid that she was standing on rattled and slid around like a funhouse floor under her shoes, a sharp reminder that the stone coffins were boxes. Julian teetered, a few of her pebbles slipping from her grasp as she flailed to stay upright. There was a light touch on her back just long enough to help her keep her footing and then it was gone.
“Come on, Jules. Hit me,” Leo taunted. “Don’t make me do the obvious ‘you throw like a girl’ joke. I don’t want to lower myself like that.”
“Right, because you could get any lower today! Why couldn’t you just say, ‘Hey JULIAN’,” she stressed her first name, flinging another stone towards a corner. “What kind of things CAN you do? How about we give those a shot!”
Julian hopped down from her perch, not interested in another spin. What she needed was a better weapon. A game of stake-the-vampire was starting to sound like a really good idea. But all she could find were rocks in varying sizes, scattered across the mausoleum floor. She’d have to settle for cracking his skull open.
“Instead you decide to dump me in a dark hole and chase me around until I go freaking BALLISTIC and start sobbing in a corner! ‘Cause, you know, THAT’S totally the way to go. Toss the baby in the lake and see if she figures out how to SWIM.” Her next throw was especially hard. Julian hoped her missile would pop him right between the eyes, but unfortunately it struck the wall like all the rest. She heard it distinctly in the brief moment where Leo wasn’t running his mouth.
“How many times do I have to go over this with you? I’m not nice. I’m not your friend. I don’t care if you’re happy about this.” He laughed, low but somehow penetrating, like the sound was rattling around and around in her bones. It was weird that his laughter could be so warm when his words were so cold. “But even if I did? You’re not sobbing. You’re yelling and doing your best to stone me to death. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t think you had it in you. What the hell happened to you, Jules? Why does it take dumping you in a lake to see you try to keep afloat?”
And then he was right behind her, his hand gripping her shoulder just tight enough to let her know he was there.
“Gotcha, Jules. Think fast.”
It was some kind of miracle that Julian didn’t shriek or jump out of her skin. Only a soft, muffled grunt escaped her lips as she slipped out of his grip and spun around so quickly that she might’ve backhanded him had she not stumbled. She crashed into one of the tombs, hands gripping the stone edges to steady herself.
What happened to her? What kind of question was that? What was the point of any of this? Julian was beginning to doubt Leo even wanted to help Michael or find their friends.
We’re not friends. I’m not your friend.
The words were ringing in her ears, muddled and dizzying. At first Julian thought maybe she’d burst a blood vessel. When a sudden overwhelming dread washed over her, one of her panic attacks seemed more likely. But it kept pouring in, stronger and stronger, until—
This door was supposed to be shut. Her fingers traced the recesses of the cleverly-disguised panel in the stone, her mouth tugging into a small frown. She hadn’t ever seen it disturbed until now.
“I’ve told you,” a man’s voice croaked, breaking the silence and stillness of the crypt. She scurried for the cover of a great stone tomb and ducked down out of sight. A few stray strands of brown hair slipped free of her coif, tickling her cheek as she held her breath and listened. “You have to stop coming here.”
At first she thought he was addressing her and a chill crawled straight down her spine at the thought. But then his companion replied in a cool, smooth voice that troubled her even more.
She listened to their conversation, but the words didn’t seem to stick in her head. She couldn’t focus. The world faded in and out of pitch black. Footsteps rang out across the stone floor, drawing nearer to her hiding spot. Trembling, she clamped a hand tight over her mouth. In the end they passed her by.
It was only when the conversation lulled that everything popped back into clarity. There was a long stretch of silence—so long that she found herself scooting across the floor and peering around the corner of the tomb. She could just barely make out two figures in the gloom. They were scarcely ten feet away, but for some reason she could not find the strength to draw back again.
“We’re not friends,” the voice was so cold. Dangerous. His back remained turned to the light of the torch on the wall, keeping his face shadow-cast. “Your attempts to ride my coattails do not a friendship make. And every word from your lips reminds me why your family fell from grace to begin with.”
“Do you truly mean to lecture me on meddling outside of our bylaws?” The impossibly tall man’s hand shot out to close around the other’s throat, eliciting a strangled gasp. “How very droll. If you can’t hold your peace, I’m happy to hold it for you.”
It dawned on her, then, that he wasn’t letting go. She was watching the life wrung out of the other man, could see the haze of death spreading across his bulging eyes in the dim torchlight. There was a high-pitched sound growing steadily louder until it split her ears, and it took far too long for her to realize that the sound was her own shrill shriek of horror.
The realization came too late.
As one man fell gasping and twitching to the dusty floor, the other turned his head in her direction.
“You,” he said, matter-of-fact. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she could feel them boring into her like twin needles. “You’re Jonah’s girl.”
She tried to suck in a breath—she wasn’t certain why, whether it was to scream anew or to stammer out some form of reply—but it lodged in her throat. Again, she made a futile attempt to fill her lungs that ended in a pathetic wheeze. Her chest was on fire. She toppled over onto the floor of the crypt, clawing a hand at her throat and seizing. With every rattling breath, her vision doubled into layers upon layers of images. They jumbled together, out of order and meaningless.
Knife. Stars. Earth, and stone.
When the world shifted back into the dim light of the crypt, Julian was very aware of being herself again. But all the feelings from the other girl still lingered. Her chest throbbed, still so painful that it was hard to breathe. She pressed her hand to her heart and looked down, and for a moment she could swear there were bloodstains down the front of her shirt.
That hadn’t been part of that… whatever that was, had it? At the end there everything had become so confused that it was impossible to tell. That had been so different from her dreams. Clear, vivid, physical. Her dreams might’ve felt equally real in the moment, but that would fade quickly once she woke up. This was new and foreign, emotion and images belonging to a completely different person mixing themselves up with her own. The urge to run out of there screaming or just burst into tears was overwhelmingly strong.
With a strangled whimper, Julian felt her knees give out.
“Aw, shit,” a more familiar voice swore. A pair of very solid and very warm arms stopped Julian from taking that nosedive.
For a fleeting moment they stood there in an awkward silence, her face smushed firmly against Leo’s chest. As Julian gasped for air, she got a lungful of laundry detergent and leather. Then her rescuer eased them slowly down to kneel on the stone floor. Only when they were both steady on their knees did he push Julian away and hold her at arm’s length.
“You just had to go and be an overachiever, didn’t you? I’m not giving you extra credit,” he muttered. Julian tried to focus on his face, or at least the faint outline of his features and the hint of sky-blue irises that were actually visible in the dim light. Her skin felt prickly and ice cold all over except for where he gripped her arms. “Jules. You with me? It’s okay. Whatever you’re seeing or feeling, it can’t hurt you, you hear me? Talk to me.”
It was the first time Leo had ever sounded remotely concerned about, well, anything. It was pretty funny considering he’d just been telling Julian how little he cared. If she weren’t still having difficulty breathing, she’d have laughed.
The chill was starting to fade as she wrenched herself bit by bit away from sensations that didn’t belong to her. A thousand different thoughts were flitting around in her head. The only thing that was stopping her from taking off was a lingering desire to spite Leo. …And his hold on her, probably.
Julian gave her fingers an experimental wiggle and let out a rush of breath.
“I know the way out now,” she mumbled, and was surprised to hear herself sound so calm.
“…Come on, then,” he told her in an equally even tone. “Show me. If you can stand up by yourself.”
It was still hard to see his face in the dark, but he was definitely watching her as he slowly relaxed his death grip and sat back. His hands didn’t quite retreat, hovering on standby as if he were certain she would topple over again any second now. Probably a good thing, because she wavered once he let her go.
“Or you could faint like a teenage girl. Oh, wait…” Was he still trying to piss her off? So much for his change in tune.
“I’m not going to faint.” Julian lifted her hands, debating whether to just shove him. Instead she braced them against Leo’s shoulders and leveraged herself back up to her feet. As soon as she was stable she snatched her hands back and clutched her fingers to her still-aching chest.
“That was weird.” The whispered phrase didn’t even begin to capture the mess in her head. Leo earned another sour frown, but she was looking through him more than at him. Stretching her arms out to either side like she was trying to keep her balance, Julian turned slowly on her heel and started walking. She couldn’t see where she was going and now and then she’d teeter dangerously to one side, but she knew she was there when she reached out and pressed her hand against one of the stone walls.
“…There should be a door here.” Julian cast a look over her shoulder, her eyes wide and bewildered. “I am really, indescribably pissed at you.”
“Good.” He reached past her to push at a spot just beside where she’d laid her hand, and what looked like solid stone gave way with a burst of icy air and an awful scraping sound. “I figure we can both live with that. Probably better to hold off the yelling until we’re topside, though, okay? Less chance of accidental cave-ins. No one’s used this tunnel in a while.”
The passageway was darker still than the buried crypt. Beyond the door it was only packed dirt making up the walls and floor, clearly dug out rather than built. Cave-ins were probably a legitimate concern. Julian cautiously picked her way along, feeling along the walls of the tunnel by hand. Leo followed her like a shadow. He was quiet like a shadow too, sometimes so much that she couldn’t be sure he was actually behind her. But when she turned around, there he was—all six feet of annoying vampire.
They rounded a corner and the earth beneath their feet hit a steep incline. Julian could see light up ahead, bright enough to sting her eyes after being stuck underground so long. She squinted and blinked against the sun, hiking up the slope only to come face-to-face with a wrought-iron door. It had the same pattern as the cemetery gates, and without the vines in the way, she could see that the little twisted shapes were iron trees.
“Come on.” Leo nudged the heel of his hand into the small of her back. “We’ll get out of here and I’ll take you home. I’m pretty sure that was way more than enough for today.”
The ride back was silent. Julian was thankful for that. Maybe Leo understood that this was a lot to process, or maybe he was warned off by her downright murderous expression. She sat in the passenger seat with her arms crossed, staring with unseeing eyes out the window, her fingers gripping so hard at the sleeves of her jacket that her knuckles were white. Today she had learned a lesson, alright. She sure as hell wouldn’t trust Leo ever again.
But the crazy thing about his plan was it had worked, hadn’t it?
Somewhere in the middle of all her frenzied panic and slinging rocks, something flipped on inside her. Julian hadn’t meant to do anything. But it happened. That was a vision. An actual waking vision, an impossible thing that she could do. And despite the scared little voice in the back of her mind screaming that she should stop now and forget the whole thing, a stronger part of her was wondering: Why couldn’t I do this before? How did I not know that I could?
If Julian could find a door, she could find their friends. If she could find their friends, there was nothing stopping her from finding her mom and dad too. Now all she needed was to learn to do it at will.
When they turned down her street and she glimpsed the terracotta roof of her house through the trees, Julian shifted in her seat to pin Leo with another wide-eyed stare.
“We’re going to do it again,” she announced. “But not around a bunch of dead bodies, and you’re not going to be a dick about it.”
“Sure. No dead bodies except my own, got it.” He raised his eyebrows at her as he glanced over, then back at the road ahead. “Believe it or not, I’m not doing this just to get my kicks from picking on you. But I’m not going to treat you like a china doll, either. You’re clearly not one, despite what the general consensus seems to be. If you can sass someone who’s implying they’re going to eat you, you sure as hell can—”
He stopped talking abruptly. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and the halfway friendly expression he’d been wearing withered and died. Now he was the one whose knuckles were turning white as they gripped the wheel.
Julian followed his cold blue eyes to her front porch.
Michael and Angela were sitting there waiting on the steps. They both hopped to their feet as Leo pulled up to the curb and threw the car into park.
“Forget it,” said Leo. He reached across Julian and shoved her door open. Her cell phone was pushed into her hand a moment later. Julian had almost forgotten that he’d said he took it. “Get out.”
For a second they’d almost been on the same page, but then this happened. Julian didn’t understand Leo’s animosity towards Michael and she was starting to suspect it might’ve been more serious than she first assumed. Before she could open her mouth to ask what exactly his problem was, Angela shouted her name across the yard.
Crap, what was Angela even doing there with Michael? Did she really need to bring in reinforcements just because Julian had skipped a little school?
When Julian turned on her phone and the message count went up and up and up… she knew she was in trouble. She climbed out of the car and met Angela halfway down the driveway. The nearer Julian got, the higher Angela’s eyebrows climbed. Julian followed her gaze downward and grimaced when she saw why her friend no longer looked so relieved. Double crap. She looked like she’d been rolling around in piles of dirt. Patches and smudges were all over her clothes, and when Julian reached up to touch her hair she got another handful of cobwebs. Squealing, she shook out her fingers.
“Did he kidnap you?” Angela asked outright.
“Did. He. Kidnap. You.”
“Of course not!” Oh Jesus. Julian could only imagine what kind of scenarios the girl had been dreaming up. Angela really had no idea what Julian was getting into, and she couldn’t even tell her. Plus these two had probably been feeding into each other’s fears. Based on his closed-off face and the tension emanating off of him while he hovered behind them on the porch, Michael definitely had some scarier ideas about where she’d disappeared to.
“I’m okay,” Julian stressed. “A few hurt feelings and wounded pride, maybe. We were just… doing stuff.”
“‘Doing stuff,'” Angela repeated, unimpressed. “How about somebody explains what that stuff is before I start swinging this purse around?”
“You’re sure you’re alright?” Michael cut in, circling around Angela and holding up a preemptive hand to block any purse-swinging. His eyes scanned Julian’s face and his lips pursed… but from the way his shoulders relaxed, it seemed his worst fears had been allayed.
“Let me guess,” he said. “He took you to the graveyard for a history lesson. This is exactly what I mean when I said he doesn’t think things through. Julian, I’m sorry. I’ll have a word with him.”
Briefly, his fingers brushed Julian’s shoulder as he stalked past her towards the Mustang.
“Nothing bad happened!” Julian muttered, a bit too late. She watched him lean down to talk to his cousin through the open window. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he didn’t sound too pleased. Part of her wanted to dash across the yard to make sure Michael wasn’t cursing out his cousin in her honor. Which was just… annoying. Leo deserved to get kicked in the face. But now that she wasn’t getting chased around in the dark his behavior didn’t seem quite as bad.
She gave Leo and the car one last fleeting glance over her shoulder. This wasn’t the end of their conversation, no matter what he thought.
When she turned back around, she quailed under Angela’s affronted glare.
“You have a thousand things to start explaining, young lady.” The taller girl was having a hard time keeping the amusement out of her voice, even if she did have that perfect disapproving stare down. Angela grabbed the sleeve of Julian’s jacket between two fingers and hauled her toward the front porch.
Julian gave an exasperated sigh, tugging her arm free the moment they reached the first step.
“I’m helping with something,” she attempted to explain without giving too much away. “Something I can’t tell you about, but I would if I could. It’s not as bad as it looks, but it’s… It’s weird.”
In turn, Angela rested her hands on her hips and gave Julian a dubious once-over.
“You know how much I love secrets, Julian. And how absolutely terrible you are at keeping them.”
Oh hell. Julian forgot the word secret was basically a challenge where Angela was concerned. Her regret must’ve shown on her face because Angela was suddenly grinning her wide Cheshire grin.
Yeah, Julian was in trouble for sure.
“What did you do?” was how Michael greeted his cousin.
As if he hadn’t heard, Leo reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pair of sunglasses that Michael hadn’t seen since the 80’s. He hadn’t known Leo even still owned the stupid things. He waited with all the patience he could muster as Leo slipped them on—more slowly than was necessary, he was certain—and only then turned to look at Michael.
“Relax, Mike. She’s fine. An A-plus student, actually.” A smirk tugged at his lips. “Aren’t you proud?”
Michael flexed his fingers where they rested on the edge of the open window. The car’s engine was still running, the metal vibrating under his hands. For a moment he let his eyes linger on the empty seat beside Leo, where Julian had so recently been sitting. The girl had been in such a hurry to get out that she hadn’t even bothered to close her door. Michael’s mouth pressed into a tight, thin line as he chose his next words.
“Fine?” he echoed. “Leo, she’s white as a sheet.”
“She’s spooked, that’s all. Things got a little too intense for your precious princess. Buuuut for the record, that girl—” He pointed past Michael. “—definitely got a vision back there. I think we’re in business.”
Michael frowned, momentarily thrown by the change of subject. He wanted to press Leo for details on how Julian became “spooked”, but… in the end, he took the bait.
“A vision? What did she see?”
“Dunno. I didn’t ask.” Leo shrugged. “Maybe you two can talk about it in between the wedding plans. Have you found a caterer yet? I might have an in at the blood bank.”
That was officially the limit for the day. Michael wasn’t going to put up with this.
“That’s it,” he told Leo. “You’ve done enough damage here. I should have known better than to think you’d want to help. I thought you cared about Tasha and Colby, but that’s not what you’re after, is it?”
“Fuck you, Michael,” hissed Leo, his smug look evaporating. “You have no right—”
“Go home.” That tone brooked no argument. Michael leaned closer, undeterred by those shades. He knew that Leo was meeting his eye. After a long moment, he straightened up and loosened his hold on the car. “I may not be an expert, but I think I’ll be a better help to Julian than you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Leo reached over and yanked the passenger-side door shut. “I hope you’re happy.”
Michael opened his mouth, but Leo was already speeding away. He stepped back just in time to avoid a tire rolling over his foot.
“Not particularly,” he answered anyway, putting his hands in his jeans pockets and watching the Mustang’s bumper disappear into the distance.